During the Cold War, science and technology became powerful weapons of intimidation between the United States and the Soviet Union, each side trying to outdo the other.
But with the launch on Oct. 4, 1957, of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to circle the Earth, the Soviet Union appeared to have bounded into the lead.
Enter 36-year-old former World War II submariner Capt. William R. Anderson, who, in June 1957, was given command of the world's first nuclear-powered sub, Nautilus. Unassuming and strictly by the book, Anderson harbored a nearly obsessive dream: to take this marvelous vessel on a voyage under the polar ice cap and emerge on the opposite side of the Arctic Ocean.
In one voyage the fabled Northwest Passage would finally be realized, opening endless new commercial possibilities. And, more important, it would establish a new line of defense against the Soviet Union.
Anderson (who died in 2007) and Don Keith, a 25-year broadcast veteran and author of 15 books, have written The Ice Diaries, an updated version of Anderson's 1959 chronicle Nautilus 90 North.
In this new account, which contains recently declassified information, we learn how desperate the Eisenhower administration was for American technological success and how personally enraged the president became when Nautilus' first 1957 partial-polar exploration was "dribbled out" by the press without fanfare. And it was Ike's anger, Anderson reveals, "that ultimately sent Nautilus and her crew across the top of the world on our historic mission."
Another personality who looms large in The Ice Diaries is Adm. Hyman Rickover, visionary guiding force behind the nuclear submarine program. Quirky, highly contentious and protective of Nautilus, Rickover nearly squelched Anderson's chances of becoming its skipper and later resisted his plan for transpolar exploration. It took the personal support of Eisenhower and World War II hero Adm. Arleigh Burke for Anderson to gain approval for the mission.
In June 1958, in Operation Sunshine, Anderson made a transpolar attempt but was turned back when he found so little clearance between the sea floor and the ice above that, he tells us, "A man of average height standing on our sail could have reached up and touched the solid, treacherous ice as we crept beneath it."
Many acute problems arose: damage to periscopes, erratic compass readings, a dangerous leak in the condenser system, even fires.
Despite these difficulties, Nautilus set out from Pearl Harbor on July 22, 1958, on Operation Sunshine II. Equipped with updated compasses, fathometers and the highly sophisticated Sperry Mark 19 gyroscope, it made its way to the Bering Strait, between Alaska and the Soviet Union. Unable to dive in shallow waters, Anderson soon found himself dodging "thick fingers of deep ice."
Finally, as Nautilus approached the Barrow Sea Valley, the water deepened. Cruising at 600 feet below the surface, Nautilus and its 116-man crew reached the geographic North Pole at 11:15 p.m. on Aug. 3, 1958 — 50 years ago today. It surfaced two days later in the Greenland Sea of the Atlantic Ocean. The unpretentious Anderson and his intrepid crew instantly became heroes.
Besides providing an insider's perspective on a unique chapter of the Cold War, Anderson's and Keith's vividly rendered The Ice Diaries is also a moving human drama filled with adventure, courage and heart.
Chris Patsilelis has reviewed books on military subjects for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Philadelphia Inquirer.